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Campaign Finance Overhaul Backers Vow to Clear Senate

By Helen Dewar

and Juliet Eilperin

Moving swiftly to capitalize on House approval of the first major overhaul of campaign finance laws in nearly 30 years, the bill’s supporters Thursday claimed mounting momentum in the Senate and vowed to push for final passage as soon as possible.

The House’s post-midnight vote brought the legislation closer than ever to the brink of enactment, prompting a Capitol Hill victory rally by its supporters. GOP and Democratic operatives, meanwhile, scrambled to devise alternatives to the many millions of dollars they now raise in “soft money” donations -- which would be outlawed under the bill.

With 41 Republicans joining 198 Democrats in supporting the bill, its passage marked a bipartisan high point for a session that has been marked by intense partisanship over domestic issues. But lawmakers were skeptical whether the bipartisan spirit would carry over to other issues such as spending and taxes.

There was near universal agreement, however, that supporters of legislation to end huge special-interest contributions to political parties had finally gained the upper hand -- although not necessarily the last word -- in their long struggle to reduce the influence of money in politics.

“This is the year we’re finally going to pass campaign finance reform,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told the bill’s supporters.

The House-passed measure, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., would curb the flow of unlimited “soft money” to political parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. It also would restrict issue advertising by advocacy groups when it targets specific candidates just before an election.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has fought the bill for years, said he and other foes are studying the House-passed measure and have not yet decided whether to attempt a filibuster that might force it to a conference between the two chambers. The bill’s supporters fear a conference might prove fatal.

At the White House, President Bush remained officially non-committal about whether to sign or veto the bill, although several aides said they believe he will sign it. Some aspects of the bill please the president while others do not, said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “But ultimately the process is moving forward and the president is pleased,” he said.

Buoyed by House approval of the bill at 2:43 a.m. Thursday after a grueling 16-hour session, Daschle told reporters he will bring up the measure for a Senate vote the minute it arrives from the House. House leaders indicated it will be ready for transmission next week, meaning the Senate could address it when it returns the week of Feb. 25 from Congress’ Presidents Day recess.

Daschle vowed an all-out fight to overcome any delaying tactics. He claimed to have picked up at least one vote, putting supporters within reach of the 60 needed to break a filibuster. A filibuster is a delaying tactic meant to kill a measure without bringing it to a direct vote.

A slightly different version of the legislation got 59 Senate votes last year, and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., -- one of three Democrats who had voted against it -- said Thursday he will vote to end any filibuster. Another, John Breaux (La.), said he was reserving judgment. The third, Ben Nelson (Neb.), said he would support a filibuster.